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London and the Thames go inseparably hand-in-hand. The city originates in large part because of the river, and traffic along it has given it life since its beginning. As for the Thames, in the imagination it’s pre-eminently London’s river. But it’s not London’s only river – it’s just the only one most of us see. The others are there, away from the broad, winding twists and turns of the leading player, zig-zagging its way east, loops and peninsulas obscuring each other before it broadens and reaches the sea. It’s those supporting actors, the secret rivers covered, canalised or otherwise obscured from view that the Museum of London Docklands’ current exhibition is about.

To find out what this is, you'll have to read on... (c) Museum of London.

Father Thames has gained the lion’s share of the fame, to the extent of having a recognisable image (even if in many people’s minds it dates back to the Great Stink when the river’s reputation as a slightly mobile cesspit was not one to envy), but not all of the others are entirely unknown. The Fleet, a choked, rubbish-strewn channel for much of its existence, gave its name to Fleet Street, which became a metonym for the glories of British journalism. For those with an interest in Roman Britain, the Walbrook has an exalted name. Now channelled and concealed, it runs beneath what is now The City, near the area of the Bank of England and the Monument to the Great Fire. The high water table around its straight stream has bathed and preserved some of the finest organic remains to survive from the time when Londinium was the capital of the Roman province of Britannia. As a result, we have the timbers of the Mithraic temple, wooden doors to Roman houses and the magnificent cache of writing tablets discovered at the Bloomberg Square excavations (for which see the blog’s review of the new Mithraeum display). So these other rivers, far from being unimportant rivulets, have left a mark on London’s story both by playing a part in it, and by preserving its archaeology. So what is there to see?

The exhibition is at the Docklands museum, away from the Museum of London’s main site, where the excellent Roman Dead exhibition was held a while back. Fittingly, the Museum is itself in an area interlaced with docks and quays, everywhere intertwined with the water. It’s composed of a mix of objects from the museum collections, recent artworks and video/sound installations. The objects are sometimes familiar, but not always – either I’ve not seen some before, or I’m seeing them properly for the first time. Either way, good. The finds cover all periods, from Bronze Age skulls through Roman, Anglo-Saxon, Tudor and Georgian to plastic dinosaurs dredged up yesterday. Tomorrow is covered, too, with the potential future of the rivers considered. This includes plans to ‘daylight’ rivers that have been covered over and channelled beneath our feet to allow them to contribute more to the environment and feel of the London to come. But the archaeological side is more our thing, so let’s focus on that.

Swords deposited or lost in the Thames in the Late Bronze age, Viking era and the fourteenth century. (c) Museum of London

Broadly speaking (and with exceptions) the exhibition is arranged geographically. The foreshore comes first, i.e. the gravelly ‘beaches’ revealed by the tide and endlessly productive of finds. These are pored over by London’s riverine beachcombers, the Mudlarks, one of whose beautifully done finds diaries, like something wrought by an antiquarian of the early days of archaeology, sits next to the Roman intaglio whose discovery it describes. Then there is the story of the rivers, creeks and inlets in turn. There’s an emphasis on the ways the rivers have been seen as sacred, especially for the early periods, but once again brought nicely up to date with a contemporary offering to the waters by Hindu Londoners.

Roman Plate Brooch. First-second century AD. The original would have been inlaid with brightly-coloured enamel, a Romano-British speciality. (c) Museum of London.

I was particularly taken with the material from the islands and headlands south of the Thames in the Roman period, when the river was broader and more sluggish and what is now Southwark and the surrounding area was a low-lying series of marshy islands pierced with inlets, and an outthrust headland taking the road from Londinium bridge away to the south. This is an area whose importance to the Roman city has become increasingly apparent through some impressive excavations in recent decades; those old maps of the Roman city showing it confined to the north bank no longer tell a recognisable story.

Finds from the Tabard Square excavation form the majority of one of the first cases, and were one of the main reasons I came. The dig uncovered a Roman religious complex with two temples from the Antonine period – the mid second century AD. This is a rare kind of site for London, and produced some of the city’s most interesting Roman archaeology. Taking centre stage is an impressive inscription probably recording the donation of the northernmost temple by a trader from what is now northern France, found as recently as 2002. He was one Tiberinius Celerianus, and the tablet calls him a moritix – which seems to be something to with nautical trade. An early example of a wealthy London merchant making a grand, unmissable charitable donation? From the same site, there’s an unusually clear example of a cow skull with dramatic evidence of the death-blow administered as it was sacrificed. It’s good to see the material from this site drawn together in this way; I hope it’ll kept together and given more prominence when the Museum of London moves to its new home in Spitalfields.

The religious theme is carried on with a mediaeval pilgrim badge of St Thomas Becket, Neolithic axes seemingly given to the river and a Roman lead curse tablet, inscribed spearhead and miniature bronze sword and shields from the Walbrook.

Conservator Luisa Duarte at work on a twelfth-century toilet seat found lying over a cesspit behind buildings facing on to Fleet Street. (c) Museum of London

There are more Roman remains in other cases, like the leather shoe and wax writing tablet from the Fleet. I’ve concentrated on them, but there are fine things to see from other periods. There’s an imposing wooden toilet seat (a three-seater) – with a modern reproduction if you fancy a sit down – a brilliant find from the twelfth century Fleet and completely new to me. You’ll see basketwork late mediaeval fish traps, wooden shoes (pattens) from the fifteenth century and a wooden sundial of maybe a century later, all testimonials to the excellent organic preservation a waterlogged atmosphere provides, and the daily life and work of generations of Londoners.

Entrance to the Fleet Canal, c.1750 by a follower of Samuel Scott. Showing some influence from Canaletto, this depicts the mouth of the Fleet Canal which flowed down from Holborn. Londoners didn't tolerate such beautification, and rubbish dumping soon brought the Fleet back to normal. Image via Wikimedia.

The story is enriched by paintings too. I especially liked the Georgian piece showing the entrance to the Fleet Canal in 1750 after a doomed effort to tidy the turbid channel up. It looks enchanting, refined – and completely unlike London! It was also a bit of a swizz even in its own time, since the beautification barely extended beyond the narrow viewpoint of the painting. Now that is like London. Just around the corner is a painting that may also have issues with the truth, but certainly doesn’t deceive to flatter.

Jacob's Island, Rotherhithe, 1887. Watercolour by James Lawson Stewart. Situated between the Thames, the outflow of the River Neckinger at St Saviour’s Dock and two tidal ditches, Jacob’s Island in Bermondsey was a notorious slum in the early nineteenth century. This watercolour by James Lawson Stewart (1887) recalls Folly Ditch, immortalised as the site of Bill Sykes’s drowning in Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist (1837-39). In the mid nineteenth century the poor residents had no source of clean water and many had to use water from the foul ditch into which they also discharged their waste. The water often ran red with pollution from the nearby leather tanning industry. Described in the Morning Chronicle as ‘the Venice of drains’, the area became a cholera hotspot in 1849. (c) Museum of London.

This is a well-known 1887 work by James Lawson Stewart showing Jacob’s Island in what is now a much-changed Bermondsey, a forbidding-looking nest of back alleys and creeks. Literally Dickensian, since the painting in all likelihood represents the spot where Dickens has Bill Sikes run down in Oliver Twist.

Skating on the Serpentine 1786, Thomas Rowlandson. (c) Museum of London.

Over the way again and you have Londoners at play on the waterways – Rowlandson’s Skating on the Serpentine, wooden bowling balls and a toy boat complete with cannon from eighteenth-nineteenth century Chelsea, and images of the improbable Ranelagh pleasure gardens, one of those prodigious Georgian constructions that you struggle to believe ever existed in London. It’s a very different city. And is so, in part, because of the secreting of the rivers. Some were covered over to channel their waters more usefully, or less poisonously (especially after Bazalgette pinpointed the source of London’s cholera epidemics); some were canalised like the Lea (the one most familiar to me). Some are still visible here and there, if you know where to look.

'The perspective view as intended to be finish'd of the Amphitheatrical building with part of the garden in which it is erected at Chelsea, designed by William Jones, Arch.' A view of the intended Rotunda at Ranelagh Gardens, 1742. (c) Museum of London.

It’s well worth visiting, then – though you only have about a month left to do so. The finds are interesting and well-arranged, and generally work nicely with the contemporary art. Of the latter, by the way, I particularly enjoyed spending time with Adam Dent’s An Anecdotal View of Walbrook (2015), which is both nicely done aesthetically, and an endlessly interesting board of trivia and arcana that constantly tells you something you didn’t know. The boards scattered around the display also offer some minor revelations – the Oval cricket ground’s shape and banks of seats owe themselves to the curve of the river Effra, and soil dug out when it was covered over, for example. As a final touch, we’re reminded of the ways these Secret Rivers have inspired writers, allowing me, as I’d expected, to catch a glimpse of Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London among them. As it’s a work which re-imagines the role of the city’s ‘lesser’ rivers, and plays on the sacred qualities we’ve seen run through them since before they had their familiar names, it’s a nice point of departure.

  • The exhibition runs until October 27. Easy to reach from the Docklands Light Railway stations at Canary Wharf (3 minute walk) or West India Quay. Admission is free.
  • There’s no print catalogue, but there is a rather nice online-only work to accompany the exhibition, available for download here.
  • You can read the moritix inscription on the newly souped-up Roman Inscriptions of Britain website.

2 responses to “Secret Rivers at the Museum of London Docklands”

  1. Jim Cleary says:

    Nice piece & an excellent exhibition. One query though – surely it was John Snow who identified the source of cholera in London, with Bazalgette being the civil engineer who built the sewers that fixed the problem?

  2. Paul Beston says:

    Good catch, yes; that’ll teach me to revise a text.

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